Mike Pesca is a reporter who has covered economics, politics and the arts during his tenure at National Public Radio. He is currently NPR's Sports Correspondent.
The Louisville Cardinals are among the teams dominating at this year's men's Division 1 NCAA basketball tournament, which resumes Thursday night. The team credits harassing, active defense for its wins.
But there's something else at work, too: deflections. The team puts a lot of stock in them, though deflections aren't an officially tracked statistic.
The way Mario Batali thinks about black truffles, the penchant Quentin Tarantino has for quoting Hong Kong martial arts films in his own movies — that's the way University of Louisville coach Rick Pitino talks about deflections. Why deflections?
"If you got 35 deflections, you're going to win 95 percent of your games," he says.
That's in the NBA, with 48 minutes a game. In the 40-minute college game, the number is lower. Louisville has been breaking deflection records.
The deflection doesn't have a set definition. Like King Cnut affecting the tide, each college coach gets to personally define deflections. A deflection can occur when a defensive player in any way redirects the intended flight of the ball.
Indiana University coach Tom Crean, the other big-time college coach who is always talking about the stat, counts drawing charges as deflections. Pitino doesn't, but he does count corralling a loose ball as a deflection.
Pitino has charted this phenomenon of deflections for more than 30 years, including his first stint with the New York Knicks under legendary coach Hubie Brown. Brown allowed his young assistant to post the team's deflection stats on the blackboard at halftime.
But Pitino left off the players without a deflection. Brown emphatically demanded that all players, even — especially — those with zero deflections be listed. Today, Brown still says that deflections were the kind of stat that revealed a great deal about his team's defensive effort.
"Whether we were up for this game, whether we were just in second gear or whether we needed a major transformation," he says.
And the habit of shaming the nondeflector lives on.
Louisville guard Kevin Ware is a part of a grand tradition of fearing the wrath of a deflection-obsessed coach.
"Every half-time, every game, they'll have the deflections tallied up. ... [Coach] is really big on deflections, so if you're playing minutes and you're not getting deflections, there's something wrong," he says.
The great beauty of the deflection is that it makes the ephemeral tangible. Most of the statistics kept in basketball relate to offense, points, shooting percentage and assists. Telling a player in a timeout to" play hard defense" is vague, and telling him to get a steal is requesting an outcome.
Speaking of deflections is emphasizing a specific action, which gives the player a sense of control. Brown, a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, says making instructions tangible is an important part of communicating with players in pressure situations who are dealing with crowds, adrenaline and opponents.
"You have to be able to short-term them when you talk to your players, so that they retain what's going on," he says.
This tournament, members of the Virginia Commonwealth University staff were seen on the sideline counting deflections in checkers on a Connect Four set. Louisville and Indiana keep their own private tallies; the only real way for the public to get a handle on their number is to subscribe to a service that counts them.
There is another way to get a sense of deflections: In this tournament, deflections offer a direct correlation to a team's chances of making it to the Final Four.